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Uncommon Ground

Radical approaches to artistic practice


Kirsten Lloyd
Contact:
Alison Stirling
alison@artlinkedinburgh.co.uk
0131 229 3555

Artlink, 13a Spittal Street,


Edinburgh, EH3 9DY

www.artlinkedinburgh.co.uk
theideasteam.wordpress.com
Uncommon Ground
Radical approaches to artistic practice
Kirsten Lloyd
Introduction
Imagine an artwork that brings people together,
allowing each person to contribute to its making on
their own terms. Imagine world-renowned artists and
engineers working alongside a small day centre in
Midlothian. Imagine a more equal playing field, where
all involved participate in the artistic process. Imagine
that the main protagonists in this process have profound
learning disabilities and it is from their understanding of
the world that the artwork stems.

What will the work look like and what will need to
happen to make it possible?

This is part of a series of articles and discussions that


we will present over the coming year. As the project
progresses, artworks emerge and ideas evolve, we
will share our findings with you, our partners and our
networks.

We would like to thank the Creative Scotland Promoting


Equalities Programme for their enthusiasm and support,
as well as the artists and specialists who make this work
happen. Over the next few years these artists and many
others will realise one of the most innovative art projects
in Scotland.

Most of all, our thanks go to Ben, Nathalie, Paul, Fiona,


Nicola and Donald, you are truly inspiring people!

The Artlink Team

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Uncommon Ground
Radical approaches to artistic practice
Kirsten Lloyd

Kelly Dobson is figuring out how to build time


machines. Coming from a family of mechanics and
machinists she has a long-standing interest in technology
and its impact upon everyday life. Her own career as
an artist/engineer has paralleled the dramatic rise of
personal devices that promise users special powers
ranging from constant connectivity to a quick and
easy memory boost. But even back in the late 1990s
Kelly was quick to recognise that mobile phones and
portable computers were usually geared towards a
particular set of goals: devising innovative ways to
harness individuals productivity and generating high-
performance employees. In the belief that exciting
things can happen between people and machines that
arent driven by profit she adopts a different approach,
designing personalised appliances that address everyday
human needs. And so, though her time machines will
probably take the form of vehicles, they wont have
flux capacitors. Rather their interiors will be designed
to manipulate and queer time; speeding it up, slowing
it down or even attempting to bend it. Understanding
that people with profound learning disabilities can
experience temporality very differently, Kelly will
carefully engineer the spaces to respond to the specific
rhythms and modes of particular individuals.

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She hopes that inside these machines more meaningful
meetings can be facilitated in the sense of a meeting
of minds, or meeting half-way by helping to create a
common ground between their inhabitants.

This work encapsulates themes that kept recurring in


my recent discussions with Artlinks team of artists,
namely the shape of time and the shape of relationships.
What follows is an attempt to understand how the
creative process is calibrated inside each project and
how engagement with Artlinks programme of sensory
work has impacted on the artists own practices. I
want to consider their diverse responses through these
interlocking themes of time and relationships, subjects
that push to the fore ideas like care, exchange and
attention. From the start it has been clear that a different
framework is required in order to understand the
approaches of these artists. Not only are conventional
art objects in short supply, but our usual conceptions
of chronological or linear time simply dont fit in this
context. This raises a crucial question: what other
frameworks of analysis are available? One answer could
be that, rather than thinking about production in the
way that it is usually applied in industrial societies and
the artworld (put simply, the making of things), its
perhaps more useful to think in terms of reproduction,
meaning the making of relationships and social fabrics.

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Reproduction is an idea more usually associated with
pregnancy and child-rearing, but it has also been
extended to encompass the work required to create
and maintain domestic family life (through things like
communication, care and housework). What is the
value of thinking through artistic practice from this
perspective? For one thing, it orientates attention away
from art products and towards relationships: emotional
labour and the materiality of care are whats important
here. For another, it offers a different way to approach
time. In place of shift time or project time (each with
prescribed start and end points), reproduction opens
up the idea of life-spans. This isnt to say that Artlinks
work lasts for entire lives but rather that their work
is durational its allowed to progress organically
rather than being shoehorned into set schedules. The
experience of time is led by the relationship itself:
sometimes slowed, sometimes repetitive, sometimes
felt as bursts of intensity. Reflecting on particular
works in more detail will help to describe what this
means for the process of art-making. It will also show
what their experimental creative approaches can bring
to a consideration of social practice more generally.
Recently popular across the field of art, this type of work
has prompted artists to intervene in the social fabric in
a variety of ways; from setting up temporary schools
or businesses to staging re-enactments of events from
recent history. Though linked, Artlinks methodologies
can be seen to open up spaces for the questioning of this

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type of practice spaces that are much needed in terms
of contemporary art discourse in Scotland.

Nowness

Laura Aldridge and Laura Spring have been working


collaboratively with Artlink for around seven years.
Though they have independent creative practices as a
visual artist and designer respectively, experimenting
with materials is central to both their working processes.
In the context of their weekly workshops at the Cherry
Road Resource Centre in Midlothian, this approach is
taken in new, sometimes unexpected, directions. Focused
around those individuals with some of the most complex
needs and therefore often the least opportunity for
interaction the workshops take the form of one-to-
one or small group sessions. Yet, despite working with
the same people over long periods of time, Laura and
Laura often dont know the medical backgrounds of
their co-participants. Instead, they try to keep each
relationship as open as possible, understanding that it
will inevitably evolve and change over time, whether
that be measured in months or minutes: an activity that
clicked with a participant one week, may well fall flat
the next. This might sound obvious but it is intimately
connected to a fundamental respect for agency, a desire
to keep exploring potential, and an attempt to even out
unbalanced power dynamics. To that end the workshops

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are conceived as cycles of in-the-moment responses.
Nothing is fixed or assumed.

In practice this means that inhibitions have to be left


at the door. Continually on the search for material
prompts which can set response cycles in motion,
Laura Spring found that dressing up could be
particularly productive, lending everyday encounters
an unpredictable and slightly surreal twist. She began
with the simple idea of finding out what would
happen if a participant with a severe visual impairment
brushed against something furry, only to reach out and
discover that its an apron attached to a human body.
The experiment eventually led to a fashion student
being commissioned to make a range of costumes
for everyone to wear. In this context, learning how
to interpret responses and maintaining a sensitivity
to reactions is crucial. Conventional signifiers dont
necessarily apply (for example laughter doesnt always
equate with enjoyment) and getting to know peoples
individual languages is a long process. The workshops
use materials to enable the development of alternative
ways of communicating through lights, sounds, colour
and touch.

The ability to remain alert and give the space that allows
things to happen is essential to any creative process. Just
as Laura and Laura use this knowledge in the context
of their work with Artlink, experiences gained through

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the workshops in turn loop back to influence their own
practices. In our discussions they were keen to point
out that this doesnt stop at an approach to materials,
but extends further: weve become more confident,
freer braver even. In both spheres of their work, they
appreciate that a minute can be as powerful as a two-
hour long session, and that patience and perseverance
are essential in the search for something meaningful.

Attention

Wendy Jacob is an artist fascinated by the interactions


between bodies and the objects we use or the spaces we
inhabit, from architecture and cityscapes right through to
open landscapes. She often works with other people to
help her navigate these interactions then develops creative
interventions animated by apparently eccentric questions:
what does it mean to walk through a room without
touching the floor? To be hugged by a chair? Though
based in Boston, Wendy is engaged in a long-term project
at Cherry Road. The long-distances involved mean that
she spends intense spells at the Centre and relies upon
her close working relationships with support staff there.
In this case her questions might be: what does it mean
to work with someone who finds it almost impossible to
communicate, when theyre living in a country more than
3000 miles away? To collaborate with support staff who
have no previous interest in art? To make a building sing?

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To address these issues and to lay the groundwork for
the project Wendy has introduced sound diaries with the
assistance of fellow artist Miriam Walsh. In their pages,
staff carefully log the vibrations and noises that resonate
with Nicola and Donald, two young adults with high
support needs who use the Centre. Their experiences of
the building in which they spend so much of their time
are notoriously habitual, each returning to exactly the
same place day after day. Wendy is ultimately planning
to create songs for Nicola and Donald, pieces of sound
that are inserted into architectural hot-spots in walls, on
floors or along railings. Experienced through touch, they
might inspire movement, perhaps across the room, down
the hall or around the corner. For now though, the focus
is on gathering appealing noises. Referring to the staff
at Cherry Road as her expert translators Wendy points
out that Dawn, John and Kingsley are adept at reading
and interpreting the nuances of Nicola and Donalds
individual gestures. Keeping the diaries demands close
attention and active listening: hits so far include the
clunk of the vending machine as it deposits a can of Coke
into the tray and the swoosh of the hand dryer when
it is turned on. While the staff amass a small mountain
of useable information, the activity of collecting also
becomes a way to create new types of exchange and
conversation. Fresh insights and perspectives are being
formed within these pre-established relationships and
the everyday data within the diaries is coalescing to form
surprisingly poetic portraits of Nicola and Donald.

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Common Sense

Going beyond the visual and using sensory experiences


as a way to try to reach or inhabit anothers space
lies at the heart of Steve Hollingsworths practice. The
immersive acoustic workshops he runs with artist
Jim Colquhoun on a weekly basis are realised as joint
performances with participants, enveloping them in
an evolving sound which they are very much part of
creating. Even just using voice can be very powerful,
he says, I use amplification a lot. For a person to hear
their own sound projected from across a room can be
very liberating or unnerving. Like many of Artlinks
artists Steves approach to aesthetics bears a closer
resemblance to the original Greek meaning than its
more recent usages. Rather than focus on visuality (or
even beauty) it referred to things perceptible to the
sense more generally. Dedicated to an understanding
of art as a means for interaction, Steve is open to many
formats and mediums in his search for the right kind of
communication structure in a given relationship.

The same traits of adaptability, attentiveness and


responsiveness are required for his intensive work with
individuals. Echoing Steve, Artlinks Artistic Director
Alison Stirling describes the overall aim as an attempt
to gather a range of different perspectives ranging from
family members to medical professionals in order to
find a way into the world of someone with profound

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learning disabilities. She evocatively relates this to
the marine adventurer Jacques Cousteaus forays into
uncharted territories. How does a person with such
extensive brain damage perceive the world? she asks.
Everything is clearly very different, senses are often
exaggerated sometimes it might be terrifying at others
it might be very beautiful details become incredible.
But these alternative understandings of our shared
world are ignored, or, if they are paid attention to,
they are medicalised. The question is: what can we all
learn about the world and ourselves if we find a way
to communicate? This is the deceptively simple idea
that underpins all of Artlinks experimental work as
well as Steves practice. Currently he is working with
care staff, parents, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Dr
Bob Walley and Consultant Paediatric Ophthalmologist
Dr Gordon Dutton to create a sensorium which can
be interacted with and controlled by the individual
they are working with, enabling him to actively create
new types of experience. Placing equal value on the
contributions of each group member in this way raises
fascinating questions around creative production and
the making of artworks. Steve readily acknowledges that
the challenges he has negotiated through his experiences
with Artlink have made a substantive impact on his
own practice, opening up the possibilities around
collaborative approaches and encouraging him to move
into performance and music to create durational projects
that unfold through time.

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Curating Care

These four brief examples reveal a distinctive mix


of pragmatism and creativity. Yet every single artist
that I spoke to emphasised the unique nature and
value of Artlinks relationship-driven approach its
clearly impossible to conceive of these individual
projects as entirely separate entities, rather its far more
illuminating to think about the infrastructure and ethos
that underpins and connects them. To end, then, I want
to consider what keeps these projects alive. Or, in other
words, how are they reproduced? Artlinks staff may
not refer to themselves as curators but its a particularly
useful descriptor in this case. The root of the term is
curare meaning to care, and, while today this usually
means caring for objects in a collection or arranging
them on the walls of a gallery, it has also historically
referred to those who care for people, their lives and
communities.

Here are two ideas then: curating-as-care and curating


care-full art projects. One of Artlinks biggest successes
has been to develop a funding model that can support
durational artistic experimentation, giving relationships
the time to grow and the experience-based knowledge
gained to actively inform long cycles of work. Wendy
Jacob put it best in her description of working in Cherry
Road: Time is understood very differently here, she
said. Progress is measured in minute increments.

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Moving quickly is not possible. In order to do anything
meaningful in this context, it is critical to have time for
ideas to slowly incubate and develop. Providing this
is certainly not an easy task in todays funding climate
where the outcomes of temporally fixed projects have to
be defined in advance: open-ended responsiveness is a
difficult attribute to build in. Supporters and funders
trust is absolutely key here, its only from a position of
understanding and shared beliefs that the necessary
momentum can be generated to realise adventures and
build pioneering working methodologies.

In the coming years it looks like love and care will


emerge as hot topics in the discourses surrounding
fashionable socially-engaged art practices. Yet the
majority of these works follow a common model: at the
invitation of a major art institution an international artist
realises a temporary project that partners with local Non-
Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in order to engage
variously deprived or vulnerable non-art communities.
The significant issues around this type of practice are
being vigorously debated elsewhere. What is perhaps
more interesting here is to consider the ways in which
the mainstream artworld would have to be reconfigured
in order to engage seriously with Artlinks work. Is it
possible to envision an art field that can embrace process
and duration, value dispersed models of authorship and
think alongside projects that effect long-term change in
slow time? What do their experimental methodologies

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mean for the future of artists, artworks, curators and our
understanding of care as both a concept and a practice?

Its worth remembering that valuing care and


relationships in such a crucial way is not simply an
ethical issue in a context where care-givers are routinely
devalued it becomes an evermore political one. Within
such complex, pressurised circumstances producing
well-informed, practical and radical interventions is an
urgent task. Here arts previous claims to autonomy and
its aversion to functionality feel incredibly outdated. Yet,
if the moment of art is hard to pin down in the care-
full interactions that Artlink curate, this does not imply
that it is absent: on the contrary, it remains the driving
force. When we are asked to imagine buildings that
sing, machines that warp time and a device that can give
someone perhaps for the very first time the ability to
alter their world, its important to remember that these
are not simply ideas but that they will exist in concrete
terms in the very near future. They are durational
creative responses that are committed to showing that
significant artworks can be useful and, at the same
time, invite us to think about our relationship to the
world and those around us in different ways. Through
shared authorship they explore how art and care can be
orientated towards genuinely emancipatory goals.

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Kelly Dobsons initial drawing of Fionas car. An extreme sculpture
that will support profound shifts in the way that Fiona accesses
her inner and outer worlds. At present the car is imagined to be
partly constructed in Fionas favourite woven textile. Based on the
fact that Fiona loves wool and fabric.

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Back in Boston, Kelly has begun to weave the first test strips of
textile which will use sound, light, movement, temperature, texture
change and responsiveness to support Fiona to take control
over the way she wants to interact with the outside world. The
textile will be incorporated into sculptural upholstery and textile
interfaces within the car.

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In Laura Aldridge and Laura Springs workshops, the artists use
materials to enable alternative ways of communicating through
light, sound, colour and touch. Individuals are immersed in multi
sensory environments, designed around their specific interest.
By working in this way the person gains a new experience.
Equally, the more the artist learns about the person then the more
imaginative the experiences become.

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To practically demonstrate how the different sounds feel, the
artist introduced a weather balloon. Activated by a transducer, the
balloon carried the vibratory signals of the various sounds. By
touching the balloon, staff were able to gain a different experience
of the sounds that surround Nicola and Donald. Over time the
artist will work with staff to introduce the felt sounds to Donald
and Nicola. Ultimately, the artist will create sound spots in the
building, places where Donald and Nicola can sit, lean or lie to
experience sound as tactile sensation.

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To address issues of staff involvement and to lay the groundwork
for her project, artist Wendy Jacob introduced sound diaries.
In their pages, staff log sounds that resonate with Nicola and
Donald, two young adults with high support needs who use
the Centre. The focus for now is on gathering and cataloging
appealing sounds from the local environment.

Pages 26 & 27: Documentation encourages all involved to


learn from each other. Information on Ideas Team processes are
posted throughout the centre in the form of feedback from its
staff training, descriptions of workshops, information from sound
diaries, written portraits of individuals. This allows everyone
involved to gain a greater understanding of the many different
experiences and understandings of the person and also to feel
valued within the process.

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In their workshops Steve Hollingsworth and Jim Colqhoun engage
people through an immersive aural/visual environment, which
serves to highlight the tiniest of sounds, attenuating perception
through a chorus of spoken, shrieked, whispered and disjointed
wordplay. The artists strive to create a zone where perception is
subtly shifted and where people are gently eased away from their
everyday routines.

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Steve Hollingsworth has created a prototype planetarium device
for Ben that comprises an umbrella projection screen, a video
projector, small speakers and an amplifier, a colour changing
LED strip and a specially designed interface. Bens sensory
preferences are combinations of sound and light (high pitched
sounds seem to be favoured). As Ben continues to engage with
the system, listening to the sounds, using the joy stick, he gains
more control of his experiences.

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Thanks
The Action Group staff, Laura Aldridge,
Malcolm Askings, Donna Birkett, Margaret Bremner,
Connor Bryson, Casey Buntin, Care UK staff,
Jim Colquhoun, John Connell, Gemma Cruells,
Liz Davidson, Kelly Dobson, Gershon Dublon,
MIT Media Lab, Dr Prof Joseph Dumit,
Dr Prof Catherine Kerr, Dr Rich Fletcher,
Prof Gordon Dutton, Brenda and Richard Fortune,
Rosemary Frew, Ben Glacken, Agnes Goodsir,
Lauren Hayes, Euan Hendry, Steve Hollingsworth,
Dawn Horley, Housecall staff, Natalie Humphries,
Donna Hunt, David Hunter, Donald Hunter and
Jean Hunter, Wendy Jacob, Dr Wendy Keay Bright,
Amy Kennedy, Dr Sarah Kettley, Kingsley Liversage,
Dr Alistair MacDonald, Ben McGill and family,
Dr Francis McKee, Duncan McIntyre, Kevin McPhee,
Emily Millichip, Fiona and Helen Moyes,
Charlotte Prodger, Darryl Reid, Denis Rooney,
Jackie Quinn, John Skouse, Paul Sinton,
Gayle Smith, Laura Spring, ELCAP staff and
management, Joan Seaton, Dawn Stoddart,
Mary Sturrock, Nicola Sturrock, Brenda Thompson,
Nathalie Thomspon, Miriam Walsh, Michael Watson,
Caro Weiss, Dr Robert Walley, Anna Krzeczkowska and
the CLDT team, Nicola White, June Wilson, Mark Wilson.

Special thanks to Kirsten Lloyd.

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The positive impact
and differences Artlink
activities have made
to Donald and others
seems unique to us.

David Hunter parent

Contact:
Alison Stirling
alison@artlinkedinburgh.co.uk
0131 229 3555

Artlink, 13a Spittal Street,


Edinburgh, EH3 9DY

www.artlinkedinburgh.co.uk
theideasteam.wordpress.com